Koch-aligned group tells donors Haley faces steep climb

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A top conservative group backing Nikki Haley in the Republican presidential primary reiterated its support for her in a closed-door briefing for major donors Saturday, while acknowledging it will be difficult to stop Donald Trump from clinching the nomination.

At a retreat in California, two top advisers with Americans for Prosperity’s political spending group, AFP Action, told donors the Koch-aligned organization will continue with its current ad buys for Haley in South Carolina, according to an AFP Action official with knowledge of the meeting.

But the advisers, Emily Seidel and Michael Palmer, also acknowledged the difficult path forward for Haley. They assured donors skeptical of Trump’s ability to win a general election that Haley winning the presidential primary isn’t the only way to stop Democratic rule in Washington — reminding backers that taking back control of the Senate remains the organization’s top priority this cycle.

Seidel and Palmer said the group will analyze data in South Carolina and other early nominating states on an ongoing basis and allocate resources in the races where they can have the greatest impact, according to the senior official, who was granted anonymity to speak freely.

Though only top AFP supporters were present for the session Saturday on the state of the presidential primary, roughly 400 donors had gathered for the retreat this weekend in Indian Wells, just outside Palm Springs.

In the closed-door session, Seidel and Palmer conveyed points similar to those the group has made publicly in recent days as they have discussed expectations about the primary and the extent of their involvement in it.

Just after the New Hampshire election, Seidel — who also serves as CEO of Americans for Prosperity — said she believes Haley is “closing the gap” with Trump after finishing 11 percentage points behind him there.

“This is still an uphill battle,” Seidel said earlier this week. “Now all eyes turn to South Carolina, where she has a steeper road ahead.”

Since endorsing Haley on Nov. 28, the Koch-aligned group has spent or reserved just over $2 million on cable, broadcast, satellite and radio ads in South Carolina, according to AdImpact. In early January, AFP Action announced it would spend $27 million for Haley on mail, digital, TV and grassroots efforts in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.

Seidel in a memo two days before the New Hampshire primary described how AFP Action is taking a nimble, “business-like approach” to making spending decisions this election in a “dynamic environment.”

AFP has been strident over the last year in its opposition to Trump and his policies, running an anti-Trump television and door-knocking campaign even before deciding on another GOP candidate to endorse. AFP Action landed on Haley after she experienced a surge in polling during the fall, after months of speculation about who they would get behind. A similar conservative group that had opposed Trump earlier in the cycle, the Club for Growth, dropped its efforts this fall as Trump maintained his substantial lead in the primary.

AFP Action’s activists on the ground have spoken with more than 1 million voters about Haley in the early nominating states, and the group has gained more volunteers than in any past election, Seidel said prior to New Hampshire’s primary.

Her allies say donor support for Haley remains strong. On Wednesday, Mark Harris, the lead strategist of a super PAC dedicated solely to supporting Haley’s bid, SFA Fund Inc., reiterated his group’s commitment to backing Haley in the race. He said they’re planning to spend millions in South Carolina ahead of the Feb. 24 primary, as well as preparing to help Haley in primaries soon after in Michigan and Super Tuesday states.

SFA Fund Inc. recently announced raising more than the Trump-aligned super PAC during the second half of last year, $50.1 million to MAGA Inc.’s $46 million.

Haley’s campaign said it had raised $2.6 million in the 48 hours after polls closed in New Hampshire, with $1.2 million of that coming from “small-dollar and digital donations” after Trump announced that Haley donors would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

While Haley was boosted by independent and Democratic-leaning voters in New Hampshire, Harris said Haley would need to improve with base Republicans as she campaigns in her home state in the coming weeks.

“I think in South Carolina, we have to continue to grow our support — we have to do better with Republicans, we have to do better with conservatives,” Harris said. “We definitely have to grow in those key demographics to provide us a realistic path to the nomination.”